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Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard
By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban

Just yesterday, in a piece we entitled, FDA Undercuts Buyer-Aligned Risk-Based Systems, we reprinted a portion of a letter that Mark Munger of Andrew & Williamson sent us during the spinach crisis. That piece was entitled, Pundit’s Mailbag — Insights From A Conscientious Grower and focused on Andrew & Williamson’s experience, working with Darden, in developing a supply chain aligned around the values of food safety.

Now, with the focus of this outbreak being tomatoes, we turned back to Mark to see how the aligned supply chain had fared under the conditions of this outbreak. We asked Mira Slot, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to find out more:

Mark Munger
Vice President of Marketing
Andrew & Williamson
San Diego, California

Q: How has the tomato outbreak affected your company?

A: I’m calling you as I’m driving around the south coast of Ireland. Ironically, I hadn’t taken time off from work for years, so for my health and well-being, I decided to finally take a vacation with my family. I couldn’t have picked a worse time to leave the country, as I now worry about the health and well being of our company and the industry.

We are right now completely dead in the water. We are not selling tomatoes to anyone in the U.S. as we are speaking. The problem is that 100 percent of our tomatoes are coming from Baja at this time of year and Baja is, for reasons unknown to us, not on the FDA’s list of places not associated with this outbreak.

Darden and Fresh & Easy were some of our last customers to hang in there with us. On Monday afternoon (June 9), both organizations made the decision with reluctance and pain that, based on the recommendation from FDA, they could no longer buy from us.

Apparently Florida made a big fuss and FDA is putting certain regions on the exempt list. The loudest voice wins. I like to think science and responsibility win out in the end, but maybe when chaos ensues, the rules change. The Perishable Pundit’s reporting on all these outbreaks has been groundbreaking.

As I look at the whole issue of food safety, that is the foundation of our company. We’ve known all along we’re responsible for our own company actions, but can’t be responsible for others. We’ve taken progressive steps toward food safety, helped along by Darden and now Tesco’s Fresh & Easy stores.

We’ve been real fortunate to work with them. We have two customers leading the industry from a food safety perspective. They’ve made us stronger and we’ve made them stronger. This hasn’t been a customer policing a supplier. We push back when we think something they’re asking for is unrealistic, and in most cases we talk it out and come up with a solution based on what’s going to be best for the consumer. You can do food safety to the point where you no longer pick and pack your products. Food safety programs need balance.

Q: What is your take on FDA’s handling of the outbreak?

A: It is a frustrating situation. We’ve always taken the stance with the FDA and health departments that we are an open book. We welcome them to come in and audit our programs. I realize that FDA is trying to take the high road, always looking out for the best interest of consumers. Whether or not FDA is behaving responsibly in this situation is hard for me to guess. We’re all going to lose in the short run. But when the dust settles, our hope is that we’ll all learn something and end up better as an industry.

Our customers rewarded our emphasis on food safety by supporting us in the beginning of the outbreak. Lately, wording from FDA in its warnings made it progressively harder for our customers to stick with us. We’re responsible in record-keeping and are working with strong partners, so the hope is we’ll only be stalled for a few days more. The challenge now is we’re not sure what’s going to happen.

FDA needs to apply the same logic to Baja that it applied to the other regions exempted from the ban. The central and northern Baja growing regions we farm in were not in production until two-and-a-half to three weeks after the food safety outbreak occurred. We think these regions should be exempt from the ban.

When we look at where we are producing and mirror that with the hard work we’ve done to put systems in place with our customers to insure we have some of the highest food safety, we feel we should be shipping like California.

Q: Has your company been communicating with FDA?

A: We haven’t been contacted by FDA or any health officials. At the beginning, we thought this was a good thing, because FDA usually contacts those that in some loose way they’ve found connections that might lead to concern. We would have liked to be involved in the process before FDA put a blanket ban across certain regions. To blanket Mexico oversimplifies how complex the different production regions are in the country.

Baja alone has three distinct growing regions; southern Baja, the central desert region, and then the northern region. When you know and understand different growing areas, it’s frustrating to see a blanket ban.

Q: Why hasn’t Baja been added to the “safe” list?

A: I won’t second guess the FDA; we respect their need to protect consumers, but this is a time to partner with the grower/shipper experts. Part of this scenario is shame on us; we need to stand up and let FDA know who we are; that we are fairly progressive in food safety and how we approach relationships with our customers.

Initially, I could envision these poor FDA guys realizing there is a connection in general to tomatoes and trying to narrow it down. In the process, these FDA officials are getting inundated by phone calls, people screaming, it’s not me, it’s not me, with everyone jockeying to defend their own positions. Everyone is pushing for instant solutions,

You have Florida, California, Georgia, pleading their cases. The associations have to represent the industry as a whole.

Q: Do you have the sense that you could have done anything to put Andrew & Williamson in a better position right now?

A: We’ve been responsible in food safety, progressive in partnerships, doing all the right things, and farming exclusively in regions that weren’t producing when the outbreak occurred. What more could we do?

We work hard with our customers to operate under the most stringent food safety procedures. We wouldn’t expect that we’d need a segment of our company devoted to advocate our case with the FDA. Why is it that when a company is doing everything right, we are suddenly being restricted from the market place? Our customers Darden and Fresh & Easy are some of the most stringent in food safety. Shouldn’t they be allowed to buy from us if they want?

We’re either invisible to FDA or Baja is invisible, and we haven’t done a good enough job on our part to change this. Heaven help us if another outbreak occurs and we’re having this same conversation; shame on Andrew & Williamson if we haven’t solved this missing gap in communication.

We’re desperate now to get on the radar screen of FDA to help them understand Mexico is really not all the same, but very diverse and striated.

We’re a little bit confused too. We took the stance over the weekend, when we heard the warning went national that we wanted to understand how FDA justified why Baja was still on the list. I have a lot of respect for the FDA, but we’d like to know why. What is it that keeps all of Mexico on the list?

Q: What feedback are customers giving you now?

A: Darden is in a very tricky spot. They were standing by us, but understandably nervous. Basically FDA’s recommendation is that Darden and all buyers can only buy vine ripe tomatoes that are sourced from places on the approved list, and most of our customers have called and said “We trust you but there’s nothing we can do. We have to follow FDA advice.”

All our customers are currently not sourcing from us. We all trust the systems we have in place to produce food safety. We’re in multiple daily contact with our customers. They are very supportive of us, but nobody thinks they are in a position to buck the FDA.

We’ve gone from being one of the premium companies in the Roma and round tomato market to non-existent. All our customers said they will be back on board if FDA puts Baja on the list of approved sources.

Q: What does the immediate future portend?

A: For the first week of the outbreak, we were relieved not to be contacted, but now we’re desperate for them to contact us. We haven’t been in this position before. We’ve always slept well because we know we’re doing everything we can to make food safe.

We’re basically being cut out of market. If this goes on much longer, this will be devastating to us, the whole industry and to Mexico.

We welcome being contacted or having someone at Fresh Produce Association of Americas get the same message across. They’ve been good allies. They’re in the best position to be the voice of all Mexico, not just the regions that cross in Nogales. We encourage them to continue to fight.

Q: Are you still importing tomatoes?

A: Our Texas customers basically stopped sourcing from us when FDA specified the direct link between salmonella and tomatoes in Texas and New Mexico, and recommended consumers in those two states avoid buying Roma and round tomatoes. Early on, two of our largest retail customers in Texas made the decision to take the tomatoes off their displays. When FDA put the list out, those retailers put tomatoes back and sourced from those areas on the list.

Now, since this weekend, FDA extended the warning nationwide and that’s when we began to lose customers nationwide. We made the decision it didn’t make sense to bring tomatoes across the border.

We totally commend the FDA for taking a more regionalized approach to this outbreak; we just feel that if you follow the same logic, we should be on the exempt list; somewhere along the line that got missed.

It really is true in our company we have no hard feelings toward FDA — we’re frustrated certainly, but I believe FDA to the best of their ability is trying to act in the best interest of consumers. Now we’d just like Baja added to that list.

Q: Were any parts of Baja producing during the time of the outbreak?

A: In Southern Baja, technically because there are some hothouse growers down there with some production since middle of winter. All we can do is focus on our growing regions — central and northern Baja. We’d like to see the same regional approach FDA used in the U.S. applied to Mexico.

There are progressive growers with phenomenal resources that would welcome the opportunity to be available to the FDA and help sort out the dynamics. We would like to see this thing get resolved and hopefully get rewarded for putting food safety as a top priority.

There are three separate issues here.

One is transparency. There is just no reason for people to wonder why the FDA or CDC does something. It should be explained so that the industry can try to come up with a solution.

For example, corruption is not uncommon in Mexico. Perhaps the FDA is concerned that the local ag authorities cannot be trusted to dispense certificates of origin properly. If so, they have to tell the industry so we can develop an acceptable solution. If the FDA is silent, nobody knows what to do and the situation doesn’t get better.

Two is restricting the scope of an outbreak. As we mentioned in our piece, FDA’s Lack of Logic And Awkward Use of Language, we think this business of giving a lengthy list of places that are “safe” is neither fully accurate nor very helpful. It would make more sense to state affirmatively the few areas that have not yet been cleared of implication in this outbreak.

That means FDA calling up USDA, calling up the produce trade groups and asking this question: “What are the growing areas that could or could not be implicated in this outbreak?” FDA quickly develops one list and publishes it. If implicated areas are cleared, they get removed, but FDA shouldn’t wait for a senator from Florida to call before it correctly characterizes a region in Florida.

Third, and most important, what this interview is really demonstrating is what we were talking about yesterday in our piece, FDA Undercuts Buyer-Aligned Risk-Based Systems, and is crystallized in Mark Munger’s paradigm-breaking comment:

Our customers Darden and Fresh & Easy are some of the most stringent in food safety. Shouldn’t they be allowed to buy from us if they want?

FDA doesn’t realize it… FDA doesn’t mean it, but its whole attitude toward food safety is rooted back in an outdated inspection mentality that doesn’t enhance food safety in 2008.

We have many readers at FDA, USDA and CDC. We hope someone brings this piece to someone in authority, because without intending to do so, FDA’s response to foodborne illness is going to result in more people getting sick, not fewer.

Here is why: The new model of food safety is risk-based. So top buyers work with top suppliers to identify risks and eliminate them. When Darden or Fresh & Easy or Fresh Express or McDonald’s identify a supplier, months and years of partnership can go into enhancing safety on a particular farm.

That somewhere in the country of Mexico someone had salmonella on their tomatoes is not an important risk factor. If FDA tells these buyers they can’t buy from the operations already carefully vetted and, instead, have to find brokers or street buyers to purchase their needed supplies from anonymous strangers… now that is a risk factor!

Working with food-safety-minded buyers is not inexpensive, and if the growers come to think that it won’t matter — that invest or not, you get banned along with the lowest common denominator in your whole state or country — then growers will be loathe to invest.

FDA has become like Captain Ahab, wildly pursuing an objective beyond all rationality. There was some salmonella in Mexico, let us try and trace it back. In all probability, though, we will never know the exact source — it probably was some birds or a corrupted water source.

But Fresh Express and McDonald’s, Tesco and Darden… they have access to better experts than the FDA does. If they want to buy from their vetted vendors, they should be allowed to do so. Let us have a pre-certification program that allows growers to get certified and then, if they are certified as “gold standard,” let them be exempt from these broad-stroked advisories — unless specifically implicated.

The problem now is that the buyers and even the food safety people at these buying organizations lose control once FDA issues a statement. Then it puts things into legal parlance, and all the lawyers can think about is Bill Marler, plaintiff’s food safety lawyer par excellance, stroking his chin thoughtfully as he questions the CEO of one of these big chains while on the witness stand: “So, sir, you elected to buy tomatoes from Mexico even though you knew that the FDA, the official food safety expert of the federal government of these United States, had specifically advised you not to do so?”

The question is why does the FDA want to make minimizing legal liability the criteria for fresh produce procurement?

We need a 21st century food safety attitude at FDA.

Many thanks to Mark Munger for taking time out from his well deserved vacation to help the industry understand the impact of this food safety outbreak.

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